December 26, 2015
The coffee maker sputtered, beeped three times, and fell silent. Susan was reaching for mugs on a high shelf in her kitchen when I announced from the doorway: “I’ve got to go to Africa.”
She poured two cups, added sweetener to one, held out the other to me and gave me her golden smile. “Well, by all means, you should go to Africa — if that’s what you want to do,” she said.
With my hands wrapped around the warm mug that cool morning in early December, I wondered if she was blessing the adventure I had speculated about during the fall or questioning my priorities, particularly about our relationship. I decided not to ask. We greatly enjoyed our time together, but we had not committed to what we called “going steady” in high school. At least, I hadn’t.
I hoped she would tolerate my ambivalence between her and and my resolute intent to remain single for at least a while. A headline in the Birmingham Post-Herald about Reagan’s budget cuts caught my eye as I sat down at the breakfast table. When Susan joined me, I extracted the inside sections of the paper and passed them to her. Another pleasant day with Susan was in prospect.
I was one of the many people Susan met on her first day as budget officer for Birmingham’s new mayor, Richard Arrington. I put my card in her hand and said I wanted to meet with her on my next visit to Birmingham. I was under contract to the federal government to provide technical assistance in economic development to cities around the country. She gave me a bright smile and said she would look forward to a meeting and offered me her card. I noted that she was impressive woman.
A month later, after meeting in her office, I asked for her recommendation of a good restaurant. She reeled off several names and jotted down them down: John’s, La Paree, Joy Young, and the Baby Doe’s. Then her phone buzzed; she mouthed that it was the mayor and handed me the list. She was engrossed in her conversation and swiveled her chair a quarter turn to stare out the window. I backed out with a wave which prompted a glance and a quick nod.
I went down the hall to see Joe Knight, the Economic Development Director and my official contact in the city. I asked him to tell me about Susan. He explained her duties as budget officer and her background as a banker with First Alabama. As casually as I could, I asked whether she was married and learned that she was a recent divorcee with a young son.
I returned to her office and said, “What I really meant to do was to ask if you can have dinner with me at one of those restaurants tonight. We have a lot of business to talk about.”
The sun was setting as I ordered a bottle of merlot at the Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine Restaurant on the side of Red Mountain with Birmingham spread across Jones Valley below us. We discussed the priorities of the new administration over appetizers and moved on to introducing ourselves personally over filet mignon as the sun cast a soft, golden glow on clouds on the horizon. The city’s lights seemed to get brighter as the sky gradually darkened to indigo and then to black. The candle on our table sputtered as we lingered over a shared piece of banana pie.
Subsequently I put Birmingham on my itinerary of cities for technical assistance twice each month instead of monthly so I could see Susan outside City Hall more often. I often called from other cities. We arranged to attend conferences together in Minneapolis and Denver, and she found reasons to come to Capitol Hill in Washington near my office. I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with Susan in Birmingham where we went to parties and special events in Birmingham, and I met her wide circle of friends. On a day much warmer than the Thanksgivings of my youth in Ohio and my current home in Maryland, I threw a football in the yard with her 11-year old son. Susan joined us and I was impressed with her throwing form.
When I divorced in the previous year, friends warned repeatedly about the dangers of “rebound romances.” I had married one of the first women I dated.
I was determined not to fall for the first woman I met like some Shakespearian character under a spell. I armored myself with a Casanova philosophy and resolved to play the game of pursuit-and-capture and elude “The Tender Trap” as Sinatra did in that movie— at least for a while.
I was traveling most of the time, but I was dating a couple of women in Baltimore and one in New Orleans, but Susan was special. Thanksgiving with Susan was wonderful — so wonderful that I hesitated to make a commitment to spend the Christmas holidays with her in Birmingham. Then I remembered a standing invitation from friends to visit them in Africa.
The weeks before I proclaimed that I was going to Africa, Susan had been laying out plans for the Christmas holidays: caroling in the neighborhood, parties at friends’ homes, a holiday concert at the historic Alabama Theatre. She didn’t ask if I would participate, but assumed I would be at her side. After I announced my determination to go to Africa over the holidays, I was relieved that she was not irritated but merely bemused. She teased me about meeting an African princess, “going native” and never returning. Her gracious response led me to assure her that my memories of her would bring me back to Birmingham even if I had to swim the Atlantic.
The invitation to Africa came from Bob Olsen. We worked together as city planners in Baltimore after he and his wife Jody were Peace Corps Volunteers in Tunisia. Before I became a consultant, Bob took a planning job with the U. S. Agency for International Development in the sub-Saharan country of Togo, and Jody was appointed Peace Corps Director for Togo. We exchanged letters. I was always pleased to see their thin, pale blue envelopes marked par avion in my mailbox.
They painted an alluring picture of Lome, Togo’s seafront capital on the Atlantic, the tropical forest upcountry, and the exotic sights in nearby countries Benin, Ghana, and Upper Volta. Invariably they concluded with an invitation to visit. Many of their friends promised to come, but none had actually made the long journey. When I wrote that I might come at Christmas, they gushed, agreed to meet my plane in Accra, the capitol of Ghana, and requested that I bring tube socks for their 8-year old son David and decorative head bands for their six-year old daughter Kirstin.
JFK was almost empty on Christmas Eve. Holiday songs droned through the long concourse, and lighted trees reflected on the terrazzo floors. I could have been with Susan in Birmingham. Then my flight to Rome was delayed. As an experienced flyer, I took the announcement in stride and hoped I would arrive in time for the flight to Accra where I was to meet Bob and Jody. Otherwise I would get the next flight. I returned to Churchill’s book on his adventures as an escaped prisoner during the Boer Wars in South Africa.
At the Al Italia ticket counter at Rome’s Aeroporti Fiumicino, I was dismayed to learn that I had missed the only flight that departed for Accra that day. The ticket agent refused to book me on the other carrier that served Accra. He didn’t even feign sympathy. I was exasperated, but the booted soldiers wearing camouflage and pacing the marble floors with machine guns at the ready helped me maintain a semblance of civility. Finally an Al Italia supervisor in an office upstairs allowed me to buy a ticket on another carrier with no assurance of reimbursement, but I would arrive earlier on the next day.
An African exchange student going home to the Ivory Coast from the University of Pittsburgh sat next to me on the plane and listened as I explained that I had to get to Lome on my own. He wrote Freedom Square on a napkin, and said it was the location where buses left for Togo. A taxi could take me there from the airport. He also warned me not to pay more than 250 CFA francs to the driver.
When I stepped out of the taxi at the bus stop, the driver demanded three times that amount. I quoted the student and the driver immediately began to protest loudly. A small crowd gathered and jeered at me. I was about to pay him off when a policeman appeared and ordered the crowd to disperse. People muttered and walked away. He told me to pay a fare near what I had offered and escorted me to a dusty Mercedes sedan. The bus had left, but I could share this taxi to Lome. I paid in advance before the policeman left, stowed my small suitcase in the trunk, and climbed in as the diesel engine rattled to life.
The only seat left was the back seat next to a woman with two young children beside her and a baby on her lap. Soon we had left Accra behind and were speeding through a treeless high desert on a two-lane road with no shoulder. The speedometer showed kilometers per hour and I calculated that we were traveling at 80 mph. No seat belts. The rusted wreckage of cars and trucks that crashed remained near the highway. As I wondered if Ghana would send an ambulance to an accident, the woman pulled banana leaves wrapped around a pungent concoction of ground cassava roots that looked like sweet potatoes and proceeded to feed the children with her fingers. I stared ahead at the arrow-straight road that disappeared on the horizon.
I was a diarist, and I resolved that this trip was one of those times. I extracted a small notebook from my pocket and titled the first chapter “My Fiasco in Rome.” I wondered if fiasco was an Italian word. If not, I decided, it should be.
As I pondered a dramatic first sentence, I thought of Susan and decided to write a letter I could mail to her as soon as I arrived in Africa. I began with “Hello from Africa,” and continued, “I already miss your sweet smile and bright laugh.” I summarized the fiasco in Rome, described the stark landscape of Ghana’s desert, and promised to write again soon. I hesitated as the Mercedes hurtled across several miles, unsure how to conclude. I wasn’t ready to say “Love.” Not yet. “Sincerely” seemed stilted as did “Yours Truly.” Finally I just scrawled my name at the bottom of the page and stuffed the letter into an envelope, addressed it, licked the flap, and sealed it.
In a couple of hours, we stopped at a shack with a weathered sign by the side of the road welcoming us to Togo. The driver unpacked the trunk as a uniformed official with a holstered gun directed us toward the door. A 37-year old American wearing a sport coat with one small suitcase entering from Ghana in a shared taxi was probably unusual — maybe even suspicious. Inside he motioned the others through one door of the ramshackle structure and out another but motioned for me to open my suitcase. He riffled through my clothes and toiletries, removed the tube socks, zipped up the suitcase, and stamped my passport. I pointed to the socks, and he shook his head. I understood.
When we arrived in Lome, I took another taxi to the Peace Corps office. A young, rosy-cheeked woman with a southern accent named Virginia told me Jody and Bob were in Accra. We chatted for a while about my predicament, and I asked where I could get a good meal and a room for the night. She walked me to a modern, mid-rise hotel with tables around a bubbling fountain, and she joined me for dinner and a bottle of French wine. After a leisurely dinner, I ordered Grand Marnier with flan. She held a Master’s in International Studies from the University of South Carolina before joining the Peace Corps. I began to think that she might find me attractive, a dashing figure negotiating the perils of travel alone in West Africa. I began to contemplate the possibilities of an evening with this young woman. Not Sinatra, but…
As we finished our dessert, Bob and Jody walked up. We untangled the complications of our missed connections in Accra. I thanked Virginia for her help and went home with the Olsens. I was surprised to see a guard at the front gate. Jody explained that violent crime was rare, but American officials were expected to have a night watchman, cook, housekeeper, and gardner on staff. I gave Jody the envelope addressed to Susan to mail from her office and fell into bed as soon as I was settled in the guest room.
When I opened my eyes in the bright morning light, I was looking at a small, purple lizard scurrying along the concrete wall above my bed. The lizard paused before exiting through a glassless window opening. Lome’s equatorial climate and coastal breezes make heating or cooling houses unnecessary. The lizards were distracting for a while, but they kept their distance from people.
Bob, who worked from home, gave me a tour of the small city in the morning. We had lunch at a restaurant run by a traditional religious sect that cared for injured birds in large cages. In the days that followed, I wandered the city, walked on the beach, and strolled through the markets.
One outdoor market featured long racks of tee shirts and hooded sweatshirts from Harvard, MIT, UCLA, and other American universities. Bob told me it’s the “dead yovo” market. Yovo translates as white people and the Togolese assume that no one discards perfectly good shirts so the original owners must be dead.
When we returned, Jody said, “You’ve got a letter from Birmingham, Alabama.” She didn’t ask, but she and Bob looked at me inquisitively and awaited an explanation.
“Oh, it must be Susan. I’m surprised,” I said to Jody. “I didn’t think she would write.” I opened the envelope, began deciphering Susan’s difficult handwriting, and walked to the porch. At the bottom of the final page. It was signed “Your really good friend, Susan. P. S. I didn’t want you to forget me.” I walked back inside.
“Well, you’re smiling. Must not be a ‘Dear John’ letter,” said Bob. He picked up the envelope and sniffed it noisily, “No perfume, though,” he announced with a laugh. A picture of Susan fell out.
“She’s an impressive woman. Smart and good looking, too,” I said as they looked closely at Susan’s picture. “We’ve been spending a lot of time together in Birmingham.”
“Wasn’t that letter you gave me to mail addressed to Birmingham?” Jody said with a sly smile.
“Yeah. By the way, how early do you want to leave for Benin tomorrow?”
Jody took a day off to drive me to Benin, the small country east of Togo. It was officially a Marxist country, but so poor that it didn’t matter to anyone but the U. S. Congress and Russia’s Politburo keeping score on blue and red maps during the Cold War. We took a boat to a village accessible only by boat with houses made of small branches tied together and perched precariously on stilts above the lake. Young boys played boisterously in the shallow water nearby. Jody said many get “river disease” and suffer an agonizing death.
On the road back to Lome, we stopped to have a late lunch at a roadside restaurant and gas station We drank from large green bottles of Benin Beer at a concrete picnic table overlooking the ocean and ate the lunch she had packed.
Jody asked how I liked being single again, and if I was serious about the woman from Birmingham.
“At first, I was thrilled to be dating. I married when I was still in graduate school so I missed out on the single life. I’ve had a good time, but it’s starting to get old. I’m enjoying spending time with Susan, but I’m not sure I’m ready to settle down and move to Birmingham. We’ll see.”
As we sipped our beer, I went on for quite a while about how much I looked forward to talking with her on the phone most nights while I was on the road. When I couldn’t justify coming to Birmingham for work, she would meet me on Friday afternoon in Atlanta with a bottle of wine and a spare underwear. I said wistfully as I looked at the ocean, “We always have a great time when we’re together.”
When I finally stopped talking, Jody said, “I think you’re in love, Michael Calvert.”